published September 1, 2006

SENCER E-Newsletter, September 2006, Volume 6, Issue 1

Expanding the Teaching Commons: Initiating the Conversation

Brian Hagenbuch, Holyoke Community College


Over the past six years, all types and sizes of academic institutions have participated in the SENCER Summer Institute, from high school teachers to community college faculty to professors from major universities. Such diversity represents a wealth of intellectual capital that is changing the face of STEM education in our curriculums, on our campuses, through our disciplines, and beyond the boundaries of our nation-state. While SENCER has matured in these respects, broader themes have emerged that beg for attention from SENCER's audience and demand the same action and innovation that has been the catalyst for STEM reform. In later newsletters, other writers will spell out themes such as 2-year and 4-year school issues, teacher preparation, service learning and civic engagement. In this piece, I'd like to initiate conversation on the vertical integration of SENCER schools, especially in relation to the students we serve.


I have spent the last 12 years teaching almost exclusively at community colleges. My job description and how I'm evaluated are pretty straightforward - teach and teach well. Instead of the mandate to publish or perish, the mantra of community college faculty is to adapt or perish. I have noticed that the tides of teaching are shifting; the chalk-and-talk lectures that once dominated classrooms are ebbing. In this sea of change, community colleges represent an ideal laboratory for pedagogical exploration. But we must go beyond the latest teaching and education journals to really feel the pulse of STEM reform that is found in the students who transfer between our institutions. They link our efforts in STEM education together to expand our teaching commons.


Most of us have probably spent the past month crafting our fall course syllabi and schedules. Central to our planning are concerns about "what" we teach and "how" we approach the material. Another question is fundamental in this process - "who" are we teaching? My students range in age from 14 to 68. Each brings a wealth of knowledge and experience into the classroom, whether as a high school dual enrollment student, a "traditional" college student, a single parent working two jobs, or a semi-retired professional interested in a career change. The diversity among these students - not only with respect to age, culture, and ethnicity, but also their various learning capacities, their reasons for being in school, and their levels of sophistication - provide a wonderful natural resource for SENCERized courses. But what transpires for these non-traditional students after they transfer into traditional four-year institutions to complete their degrees?


Beware - our audience is changing at all academic levels. Lest you think this diversity is unique to community colleges, more non-traditional students are transferring to four-year schools to complete their degrees. While the average age of community college students has decreased in recent years, the average age of students at four-year institutions is increasing. Do you really know "who" your students are beyond names? Do you know their backgrounds? Interests? How they learn? Why they enroll in your class? These questions go beyond just knowing your audience to a more fundamental examination of teaching as identity work. As I prepare my fall courses, my SENCER involvement has led me to ask how the material I cover can contribute to the identity development of my students.


The work SENCER has promoted within individual schools is now at a threshold. While our academic institutions are structured as a pipeline from high school through graduate school, our students travel a much more circuitous route. How should we respond to the diverse needs of our changing student culture? How can SENCER help construct an inter-institutional movement of educational reform? SENCER provides an ideal forum for collaborating on the integration of teaching and learning. Community colleges play a constructive role in this conversation. Let the dialogue begin.


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